Monday, July 7, 2008

Sunday Sermon

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45: 11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

During the season after Pentecost, we focus on what it means to be a Christian. At Christmas we heard the Good News of Christ's incarnation. The Easter acclamation - Alleluia! Christ is Risen! - is still a faint echo in our ears. At Pentecost we heard that we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Christ's body in the world. Now what?

I remember when my younger daughter was about six. She said one day: “So Jesus was born at Christmas and died at Easter. What did he do in the summer?” Well this period in the church calendar is a bit like that. Now what?

Well, our readings today give us some useful glimpses and lessons on the Christian life. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of moods between the Epistle and the Gospel as we move from a reflection on the personal pain of sin as seen by St. Paul to the comfort Jesus offers those who feel such a burden.

Let’s start with St. Paul: There can’t be many who sat there listening to this passage who didn’t immediately identify with Paul’s pain. No matter how hard we try, no matter how often we recognise our failings and resolve to be better – better Christians, better human beings - we always seem to defeat ourselves. The Spirit may indeed be willing but the flesh is most certainly weak….over and over again. Why can’t we do self-discipline, self-control? Why can’t we decide and then it simply be so? Certainly the Great Commandment to love God with all our heart, soul and strength and our neighbours as ourselves is daunting in its scope, but all our best intentions to conquer this incrementally seem doomed and we end up humiliated and downcast.

The problem here is sin. I don’t know about you but I hate that word. It is one of those deeply unhelpful and overplayed words that city centre street evangelists berate us with as we pass: words of judgement and condemnation which are to many of us so far away from ideas of God’s love that we find them irritating as they seem to concentrate on a narrow understanding of society and morality and an obsession with a perpetually angry God who needs constant appeasing.

Sadly, though, I’ve yet to come up with a better alternative. Sin may be a deeply old fashioned concept but we can’t dispense with it as it speaks to us of the reality of our inability to get it right in the ways we’d like. Back to St. Paul and his internal agonising over his repeated mistakes.

At the heart of this is the Free Will that God gave us. In order that we should be truly and fully human God has relinquished his control over us. Every decision we make now comes with the option to get it right….or wrong. No longer God’s puppets, no longer automatons pre-programmed only to do good, we exercise our free will with the incredible responsibility of the human condition, and in the certain knowledge that regardless of our knowing right from wrong, regardless of our desire to do the right thing, temptation is a reality that we choose not to overcome when it suits us. This isn’t something passive over which we have no control; it is a deliberate and often painful choice – painful in its “cold light of day” consequences and repeated sense of failure. The sin of deliberate action; the sin of deliberate inaction. It’s all the same. No wonder Paul sounds exhausted in his desperation. He can do nothing more to free himself from sin and even when his motives are on target, sin seems strong enough to destroy him.

Turning to the Gospel we don’t appear at first to get much encouragement there either. Today’s lectionary chooses to lead with an odd reference to John the Baptist. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus reminds his listeners, and us today by extension, that there were those who believed John to have been possessed by demons even though he lived a life of simplicity and denial. Or was it because he lived a life of simplicity and denial? So, here we have a model of someone who seems largely to be getting it right and everyone berates him for being a nutter. Where does that leave us? On the one hand we are sunk in despondency about our inability to cope with sin and on the other, when we do seem to be managing to live a good witness to our faith, people question our motives and even our sanity because we are going against the prevailing culture.

But there are words of comfort here: when we move from trying to do things in our own strength to accepting the infinite love and support of Jesus we find ourselves experiencing the passionate expressions of love that we read about in today’s Old Testament reading and psalm. We are filled with a sense of blessing and abundance.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Jesus does not tell us that it is an easy task to be free of sin and follow him. In fact, there is a cost. The cost may even come from the place we have trusted and have pledged our loyalty. That is why it is so hard to understand what sin is, and often just as hard to know what love is as well.

The answers to everything are found in the unexpected, and with that come both peace and joy. Paul’s cry of desperation is quickly calmed with the realisation that sin is defeated by God through our life in and with Jesus as our companion. And no words, no matter how profound, can really describe love so that we or another can understand.

These readings both challenge and assure us. They hint at the profound simplicity of a life in Christ, and they serve as a mirror for us to examine our understanding of who we are along with how we are living. Our desire is to love God and to love our neighbour. When we do not love God and our neighbour, we are sinning.

The words of Jesus, "Come to me all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you," are comforting and strengthening indeed. But they resonate a bit differently here today in the context of Matthew's Gospel where, if we look at them more closely, they reveal to us what kind of comfort Jesus had in mind. In this section of Matthew, Jesus is speaking as a teacher as he so often does in Matthew. In fact, we can imagine Jesus as a second Moses, delivering the new Law under the same Covenant that Moses himself revealed. Here, Jesus is reassuring his disciples that the yoke of his teaching is easy, and burden of learning from him is light.
We need to realize that the rabbis of this period in history routinely referred to the responsibilities of living by God's Law as a "yoke": as something people took on themselves to steer and guide them down God's paths in life. And it seems to have been a common complaint, addressed above all to the scribes and Pharisees as interpreters of God's Law, that their teachings had become complicated and difficult to follow, a burden rather than a guide to holy living. The sort of set of instructions I, for one, dread finding when I open a flat-pack from IKEA. The trouble with the Pharisees and their complicated interpretations of the Law was the same sort of problem: they had managed to make some basic guidelines very complex and intimidating. Of course, by doing this they retained their professional authority and power, but they also managed to turn people away from holiness of life with God, just as a complex set of self-assembly furniture can send someone off to the pub!

Throughout Matthew's Gospel, Jesus the teacher takes great issue with this: God has given his people basic guidelines for holy life, but the Pharisees have ended up making God's Law inaccessible and impossible to follow. So Jesus assures his disciples that by learning God's Law his way, they will not be intimidated by complexity or burdened, and condemned to failure, by Pharisaic rules and regulations. Jesus is returning to the simplicity of God's original Covenant and Law, to give them what they need to steer and guide their path easily, and by following Jesus' way they will find peace, rest, and refreshment.

The absolution and forgiveness which we have received as repentant sinners is neither conditional upon our ability to follow complicated rules, nor is it a permissive wave of the hand of an overindulgent parent implying that our sins don't matter. The Comfortable Words, "Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will refresh you," remind us that God's incomparable, compassionate forgiveness is a gift that releases us into life with God as responsible human beings who want to grow deeper in love and joyful obedience. After all, we are called not only to find peace, refreshment and rest for ourselves but also to live the kind of lives through which others, too, find God's peace, God's refreshing grace, and the joy of placing their lives in God's hands.